Dead Letters, or How I Learned to Love the Digamma

Dear Reader: this is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts on etymology, philology, and just fun with words. I used to blog about strictly Classics stuff, as I was trying to blog professionally and pursue a tenure-track career. Now it’s just fun and I like geeking out about words. So here’s the first of, dis volentibus, many. Enjoy.

Have you ever heard of the digamma? I won’t blame you if you haven’t; it’s kind of an esoteric, and easily forgettable, little letter. It’s found in some of the oldest Greek words, and even though it disappeared from most dialects of even ancient Greek, its absence is felt, and it somehow even lives on in Latin. First of all, what does it look like?

ϝ

See? It looks like two uppercase gammas (Γ) stacked together, hence the name, digamma (δίγαμμα). When I first learned about this elusive letter, I was really fascinated by it, and still am. It’s an extinct Greek consonant that approximates our w-sound, even though it kinda looks like our letter F. It was found in a ton of words but gradually dropped out of use. Many of the words tend to be really old, found in Homer and other early authors.

As I mentioned, too, the digamma lives on in some Latin words, mainly starting with v, which, if you know Latin phonology, has a w-sound. Veni, vidi, vici as we-nee, wee-dee, wee-kee somehow doesn’t have the same ring as the Italianate pronunciation that most people use (ve-nee, vee-dee, vee-chee), but yeah. And I’ll mention the Latin words in passing as we discuss the Greek words.

οἶδα (oida): The first one that comes to mind is just a cool word in general, but becomes even cooler when you realize it used to have the digamma. This verb means “to know.” A little background on this verb: it is the irregular perfect of the verb “to see,” ὁράω (horao). Follow the logic here: “I see” becomes, in the perfect, “I have seen.” The idea is that if you “have seen” something, then you “know” it. Isn’t that lovely? I remember when I learned that, it blew my mind.

Ready to have your mind further blown? οἶδα used to start with a digamma, hence: ϝοἶδα (woida). Jump forward in time some centuries, and well, what is the Latin verb for “to see”? video (wi-de-oh). woida -> wideo is not much of a jump at all. Super, super cool.

Related words: εἴδω (eido), the unused present of εἶδον (eidon), originally began with a digamma as well: ϝεἴδω (weido), and hence it shows up in the other tenses: ϝεἶδον (weidon), the aorist (“I saw”), and as above, ϝοἶδα. The abstract noun for “image” or “appearance,” εἶδος (eidos), was originally (you guessed it), ϝεἶδος (weidos).

οἶκος (oikos): Another wonderful word, this means “home” or “household.” From it we get all sorts of fun English words, such as economy (= οἰκονομία, oikonomia, “management of the household”), ecumenical (< οἰκουμένη [γῆ], oikoumene ge, “the inhabited world”), ecology (λόγος logos “reasoning” of the οἶκος, our planet, our home!).

οἶκος, you guessed it, also used to have a digamma: ϝοἶκος, woikos. If you look a bit further ahead in Latin, we get the word vicus (wee-kus), “village, hamlet” (= “row of houses”). From vicus we get words like vicinus, “neighboring” (cf. vicinity); I can’t think of any others at the moment. As I mentioned, super old words. On that same note, Greek οἰκία (oikia), which also means “house” or “household” (many pages have been written on the nuances and differences between the words in usage), also used to be ϝοἰκία in some dialects (Locrian, according to LSJ). Some dialects just straight-up kept the digamma and didn’t jettison it like the others did.

εἴκω (eiko): This word means “to yield, give way” (kind of like Lat. cedo, but not related, AFAIK), and apparently used to be ϝεἴκω (weiko). A Latin relative is the word vicis (wee-kis), “turn, change, interchange,” which most of you probably know in the phrase vice versa, lit. “with the change having been turned,” i.e., “reversely.” I’m not sure how many of you know we use Latin phrases every goddamn day, but we do (etc = et cetera “and all the rest”, for example). Vice versa is just one of many examples.

ἀείδω (a-ei-do): This word means “to sing”; related words are ἀοιδή, which contracts to ᾠδή (ode), “song,” and ἀοιδός (aoidos), “singer, bard” (= “one who sings”). Yep, you guessed it: ἀϝείδω (aweido), ἀϝοιδή (awoide), ἀϝοιδός (awoidos) were earlier forms. I don’t have a good Latin ancestor to this, though. I just really like the verb and its related nouns.

ἄημι (aemi): This verb means “to blow” (as wind, &c.), and it’s also a really old verb. Apparently it used to have a digamma, too: ἄϝημι (awemi). Related is the super-cool word ἀήρ (aer), “the lower air” (opp. αἰθήρ aither, “the upper air”), which also had a digamma, apparently: ἀϝήρ (awer). Cf. Lat. aer, aura (= Gk. αὔρα, “breeze”).

αἰγίοχος (aigiokhos): “the one who carries the aegis,” literally, often referring to Zeus. The -οχος part, which shows up elsewhere (γαιήοχος gaieokhos, “earth-carrying, earth-bearing,” an epithet of Poseidon), is from the verb (ϝ)ἔχω, wekho, “to bear, carry”; this lives on in Latin as veho (weho), “to carry, convey” (cf. vehicle, convey, survey, inveigh, invective, convective, &c.).

I am literally just searching LSJ right now for digammas. So I am going to be a little more selective!

αἰών (aion): This word means “age, lifetime,” and of course, from this we get the English word (a)eon. It used to have a digamma, too: αἰϝών (aiwon). The digamma survives in Latin: aevum (ae-wum)!

ἄναξ (anax): Probably best-known in the Homeric phrase ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν (anax andron), “king/lord of men,” this word means “king, lord.” Often it’s applied to Homeric kings such as Agamemnon. I love that it used to begin with a digamma as well: ϝἄναξ (wanax). Doesn’t wanax andron sound more fun?

ἄστυ (astu): This is a very old word meaning “town.” Originally it started with a digamma as well: ϝἄστυ (wastu). This word shows up in names, such as Astyanax (Ἀστύαναξ “lord of the city”), Hektor’s doomed son. I can’t think of another one at the moment, but I am sure there are others.

ἔαρ (ear): Another fun word! This means “spring,” and also used to have a digamma: ϝἔαρ (wear). Later on, Latin’s word for spring is ver (wer); cf. vernal equinox, primavera (“first spring”).

ἕννυμι (hennumi): This verb means “to put clothes on, clothe,” and originally was ϝἕννυμι (wennumi). Cf. Lat. vestis (westis), “clothing,” vestimenta (westimenta), “clothes,” vestio (westio), “to clothe” (and cf. Eng. invest, divest, reinvest, &c.).

ἔπος (epos): one of the best “words,” of course, this word means “word,” but can also refer to epic poetry itself! We get epic from this (ἐπικός epikos), but this used to start with a digamma: ϝἔπος (wepos); cf. Latin verbum (wer-bum), “word.”

ἔργον (ergon): This word means “work”; we get words in English such as ergonomic, energy, the dreaded synergy, energetic, &c. Originally it had a digamma — you guessed it — at the beginning: ϝἔργον (wergon), which survives eventually in English as work. I never knew this, but apparently it comes from the fairly old Greek verb ἔρδω (erdo), “to do.”

ἕσπερος (hesperos): This word means “western, of the west.” Greek ἕσπερα (hespera) means “the evening” (the “time in the west,” that is). Of course, we get one of the names for Italy, Hesperia, “the western land,” from this. This word also originally had a digamma: ϝἕσπερος (wesperos). Latin absorbs this as vesper, “the evening,” and “vespers” in English are “evening prayers.”

ἴς (is): This word means “strength, force” and shows up in a number of names in various forms: Iphigeneia (Ἰφιγένεια), doomed daughter of Agamemnon, “born by force,” or Iphikles (Ἰφικλῆς), the lesser-known brother of the famed Herakles. You guessed it: this originally started with a digamma: ϝἴς (wis), which comes into Latin as vis (wis), “strength, force,” with basically the same meaning.

οἶνος (oinos): Another super fun one. This Greek word means “wine,” and originally had a digamma: ϝοἶνος (woinos), and in Latin, “wine” is vinum (wee-num), from which we get our modern “wine.” Isn’t it super cool how the digamma survives in this particular word all the way up to today?

As I mentioned earlier, I did a fairly comprehensive search for digammas (digammata?) through all of LSJ, and these are some of the highlights I came up with.

If you have any to add, or just favorite words of yours, let me know. I’m also happy to take requests if you’d like me to explore the etymology of your particular favorite word, and I’ll see what I can do. I fare best with Latin and Greek-derived words, so I can’t promise results, but yeah.

Otherwise, I am going to continue this series with other words that I find interesting and want to share with you all. I mentioned apricor and apricus on Mastodon recently, and I might delve into those sorts of words a little deeper next, but we’ll see. Otherwise, cheers and thanks for reading, et curate ut optime valeatis (“take care that you fare excellently well”)!

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